On a blustery late-winter afternoon at Manassas, where a muscular statue of Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson marks the spot where the Confederate general earned his nickname, the Civil War lives, not separate from life in Virginia, but intricately entwined with it.
A father and son inspect cannons in formation for the first major battle in the war that determined what freedom would mean in America. A jogger passes by on her daily route through the suburban sprawl of Washington, D.C., oblivious.
On a glorious day when spring is promised in every new bud at Appomattox, the state's still-rural center exudes the calm of truce. Visitors must make a point of finding this place where the nation reunited after four horrific years of war. It isn't on the way to anywhere. But it provided a pathway to everything that America would become.
The battlefield beginning and the inglorious ending of the Civil War in Virginia, and everything in between, tell the story of the war as only one place can. More major battles of the Civil War were fought in Virginia than in any other state. The National Park Service lists 123 sites, the most significant of which are protected in six national parks. About 7% of all visitors take in a Civil War site, and $1 of every $7 in visitor spending is related to the Civil War, according to Virginia Tourism Corp. research.
"I've found that people of all different kinds of ethnicities here in Richmond say, 'OK. I read about this all the time. Why does this matter to me?'" said Edward Ayers, a prizewinning historian of the American South and president of the University of Richmond. "What people … need to understand is that events that changed world history happened right beneath our feet. And that if the Civil War had turned out differently, in a multitude of ways, all of world history would have been different. …
"It's hard not to be interested in the human drama of 4 million people becoming free, of 625,000 people dying, of a struggle across the entire continent.
"If you don't find that interesting, you're dead to human interest."
From Manassas to Appomattox, standing on the very ground where those combatants once stood gives answers to the war's big questions.
Would there be an easy victory, as both sides expected?
No, was the deadly answer at Manassas in July 1861. Washingtonians came out from the city in buggies with picnic lunches to watch from nearby hilltops, expecting that the Confederate Army would crumble and that the war would be over with a single battle. Instead, they were horrified when the clash of 60,000 soldiers produced 4,700 casualties, including 900 deaths. The U.S. Army, with 28,000 troops, suffered nearly 3,000 casualties before retreating back to Washington on the same roads as the civilians.
Today, Manassas National Battlefield Park commemorates both the first and second battles of Manassas (also known as Bull Run). The second battle, which happened a year later, was even deadlier than the first — 3,300 killed — but by then, soldiers were seasoned and ready to fight again.
A one-mile walking tour covers the ground of the first battle, which centered on Henry Hill, site of the visitor center. Henry House, rebuilt in 1870, stands next to a monument erected in 1865 by Union soldiers to honor their fallen compatriots. The grave of Judith Carter Henry, who was mortally wounded inside her house, is in the yard.
Following the trail toward the Robinson House, where South Carolina troops entered the battle, I decided to cut across the field to Jackson's statue — not a good idea for many reasons, including hidden marshy ground that soaked my feet. At the statue, seasonal park ranger Maureen Santelli was talking to a group. "In case you're curious, [Jackson] didn't really look like that," she said. "He's not that muscular."
An 18-mile driving tour explores the second battle at landmarks such as the Stone House and Stone Bridge. The first stop, at the Brawner Farm, includes exhibits focusing on that battle. On a Saturday afternoon, it's a pleasant drive. On weekdays, traffic can back up for miles on U.S. 29, which narrows to two lanes as it bisects the park.
Would African Americans continue in slavery?
No, came the answer at Ft. Monroe in Hampton at the mouth of the James River, where just a month after the war began, Union Gen. Benjamin Butler declared that escaped slaves who reached the fort were "contrabands of war" and, therefore, free. ( President Lincoln made his Emancipation Proclamation two years later.) The historic fort will close as a military base in September, and its future development will include interpretation of its history.
No, was the answer again at New Market Heights, one of the units of Richmond National Battlefield Park, where 14 black Union soldiers received Medals of Honor for bravery in battle. The fascination now comes from standing on the spot where it happened more than from what you can see.
For a real sense of black success in battle, go to the annual reenactment at Ft. Pocahontas in Charles City County a few miles to the east. On May 21 and 22, the battle will unfold again on the very ground where the original soldiers fought in 1864. I watched three years ago as Confederates called a truce and rode forward to give black soldiers behind the earthworks an opportunity to surrender. The U.S. Colored Troops declined and successfully defended their incomplete fortifications.
Would the young nation survive as a union?
Yes, came the answer at Appomattox in April 1865, when Confederate soldiers marched to the courthouse to stack their arms and go home in defeat.
The restored village stands today much as it did then. The reconstructed courthouse contains the visitors center and museum. The parlor of the reconstructed McLean House, where Gens. Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant met to discuss surrender terms, is arranged as it's depicted in paintings of the famous meeting.
All of the furnishings are reproductions, because the original parlor furniture was removed, some by souvenir seekers. A few items have been returned, notably a cloth doll that was a "silent witness" to the surrender. The doll on the mantel is a reproduction; the original is in the museum.
Wilmer McLean is tied to the beginning of the war as well as its end. His home near Manassas was being used as a Confederate headquarters when it was damaged in a skirmish leading to that first big battle. As federal control in northern Virginia increased after the Battle of Second Manassas in 1862, he moved his family and his sugar speculation business to friendlier and safer territory in Appomattox in the state's interior, and the war eventually followed him there.
Pursuing these questions and others has taken me all over my native state, but I've found that Manassas, Appomattox and Richmond provide the most compact answers. A scenic side trip from any of the three is easy by following the state's well-marked and mapped Civil War Trails, http://www.civilwartrails.org.
Along the way, you'll find stories that are improbable, unbelievable if they weren't incontrovertibly true, and unforgettable.
At her home in Richmond, for instance, Elizabeth Munford heard the rumble of the very battle that killed her son, whose body was returned to her that night. Charles Ellis Munford's military frock coat, laid out in a cart as if his body had suddenly vaporized, is on display at the Virginia Historical Society's major new exhibition called "An American Turning Point."
This signature exhibition of the state's commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War will remain at the historical society until the end of the year, then travel to seven other museums around the state through 2015.
The Malvern Hill battlefield on which Munford died in 1862 is also among the units of Richmond National Battlefield Park, which has its headquarters on Church Hill at the site of the Confederate Chimborazo Hospital and its visitors center on the riverfront in a restored building of the Tredegar Iron Works, which manufactured cannons for the Confederacy.
Near Petersburg, where a 10-month siege gradually cut essential railroad supply lines to Richmond 25 miles to the north, brother fought brother during the breakthrough battle.
Immediately after Petersburg opened the way to Richmond, President Abraham Lincoln and his son Tad toured the ruins of the Confederate capital, which had been set ablaze by its own departing troops as they destroyed supplies. A statue of father and son at Tredegar commemorates their visit.
Lincoln walked from the riverfront to the undamaged Capitol (a creation of Thomas Jefferson, who wanted it to look like a Roman temple to symbolize the democratic ideals of ancient Rome). Then Lincoln continued to the home where Confederate President Jefferson Davis had endured family tragedies as well as wartime defeats.
"Thank God that I have lived to see this! It seems to me that I have been dreaming a horrid dream for four years, and now the nightmare is gone. I want to see Richmond," Lincoln said.
Ten days later, he was assassinated.
Both the State Capitol building and the Museum of the Confederacy, which includes the Confederate White House, have special exhibits for the 150th anniversary, and visitors can trace Lincoln's path through the city.
Californians were not immune from the conflict. In 1863, a San Francisco militia leader recruited the California 100 to form a cavalry company within the 2nd Massachusetts. By war's end, they had been joined by nearly 400 other Californians. The unit was involved in the Confederates' final breakout attempt at dawn on April 9, 1865, the day Lee decided to surrender his remaining 30,000 troops to Grant at Appomattox.
Samuel Corbett wrote about it in the April 9 entry in his diary, now in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.
"[At] 9:30 a.m. Lee sent in a Flag of Truce. . . Grant came up and agreed to a[n] . . . armistis [sic]. . until 9 o'clock tomorrow morning. This place is called Appomattox Court House. We camp here tonight. Saw Grant, Sheridan, Mead and Lee and in fact all the big Generals at Head Quarters this afternoon."
Visitation has already increased at least 10% at Appomattox Court House, and its anniversary events are still four years away, said Ernie Price, chief interpreter.
"If you're looking for meaning," Price said, "that's more easily found here than at any other Civil War park.
"Every time I go to a Civil War site in the National Park Service, the big question is never answered. Two armies show up, a horrific thing happens, two armies leave. At Appomattox, two armies arrive, and only one leaves. A big, big question is answered.
"Something happens here that has reverberations up to this minute."